I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I have certain pet peeves when it comes to God-talk, the ways we talk about God and the ways in which God engages with the world. I’ve been thinking about a couple in particular in recent days, especially as I keep up with news of natural disasters, school shootings, and all of the other horrors that seem to fill the headlines. Here are a few of the worst (in my opinion), in no particular order:
- “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” – Really? Can anyone with a straight face say that to the people of the Philippines right now in the wake of a devastating super-typhoon, three months on the heels of a devastating earthquake? Lively theological debates can be had about whether or not God “caused” this or that calamity, but saying these words to someone living through a catastrophe is unhelpful, unloving and frankly selfish. I believe that is true whether the catastrophe is a massive natural disaster, a cancer diagnosis or a family tragedy. Why? Because, whether we want to admit it or not, these words are not designed to provide comfort to the one who is suffering, but to the one who is speaking. They are a way of distancing ourselves from the real pain, fear and heartbreak we are witnessing, and a way of absolving ourselves from the responsibility to sit with or walk alongside the sufferer. They are the theological equivalent of “Buck up, little camper! You can do it! See ya!”
- “God just needed another little angel” – I once was asked to preside at the funeral of a five year old little girl who was the victim of an accidental drowning. At the visitation before the service, I overheard a woman saying these words to the shattered, grieving mother. It took every ounce of self-control I had to keep from grabbing the woman who said them and saying to her, “Do you realize that you just told this grieving mother that God killed her baby, and that God did so because he is selfish?” I don’t believe the woman who said those words was evil, and still less do I believe that she was attempting to indict God for this tragedy. I believe she was trying to make sense of the senseless, but unconsciously did so in a way that was more about assuaging her own discomfort with unmerited suffering than with comforting that grieving mother.
- “We’re not supposed to ask why” – I’m not sure where this one came from, but it’s certainly not biblical. The single most common genre in the Psalms is laments, songs of complaint to God, and many of them are not shy about asking “Why?” Christ himself on the cross gives voice to his pain using the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) One of the things that I fell in love with in the Old Testament is its depiction of Israel’s relationship with God as feisty, gritty and searingly authentic. It is as though Israel to the command to “have no other gods before me” (literally in the Hebrew “no other gods before my face”; Exodus 20:3) as license to get in God’s face, to question, to complain, to demand answers. Moreover, such questions are seen as intensely faithful. In contrast to their polytheistic neighbors, who could take different concerns to different deities, Israel is encouraged to bring it all, the good and the bad (and yes, even the questions) to Yahweh, I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
- “God is (just) testing you” – Are you sure about that? My discomfort with this one is that I think we are treading on thin ice anytime we claim to be able to speak with absolute assurance about what God is up to. In the absence of a burning bush, a hand writing on the wall or some other kind of direct revelation of that sort, I think we need to be very cautious about what we attribute to divine motives and actions, especially in the midst of intense suffering.
It should be noted that, problematic as they are, these platitudes often are born out of a genuine desire to be helpful. It should also be noted that they are intensely human. As humans, we try to make sense of things, try to understand cause and effect and to understand how and why the unthinkable can happen. But my experience in working with suffering people has taught me that coming up with answers is often not the most helpful thing we can do. Often, the most helpful thing we can do is sit with suffering people in the midst of their pain, attending to their needs and binding up their wounds as best we can but not attempting to minimize or explain away their suffering.
The other thing I’ve learned from working with suffering people is that it doesn’t matter how good my answers are; what matters most for their healing is their answers. That’s why I’m less exercised by the responses above if they are uttered by the sufferer than by a bystander. It’s one thing for a person who is suffering to hold fast to the belief that “God doesn’t give me more than I can handle”; it’s quite another for someone else to tell them that. After all, how are any of us qualified to judge the suffering of another?
I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with a very sick woman. I visited her many times in the course of her illness, and we would sometimes sit in silence for long stretches, not saying much of anything at all. At one point, she looked over at me and said, “You don’t talk much, do you?” The truth is, I didn’t know what to say to her and had been waiting for her to guide the conversation, and I told her as much. “Finally!” she exclaimed. “Someone who doesn’t think they have all the answers and isn’t trying to cheer me up!” She then lapsed back into silence, and we just sat for a while. When I got up to leave, she thanked me for just sitting with her and not trying to “fix” her. I wish I could claim that my sitting in silence with her was planned, but it wasn’t. I simply didn’t know where to begin talking with her that day. What she taught me, though, was that when I don’t know what to say, it is okay not to say anything at all.
Suffering people have much to tell us about how to care for them in the midst of their suffering, if we can sit still and be quiet long enough to let them teach us.